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Mentoring: A Fitness Manager’s Best Friend

A mentoring system can save you time and benefit your business in many other ways.

As a fitness manager or director, you probably never have enough time. Your to-do list seems endless, and you may have to switch constantly among the many roles that you play. Consequently, you might feel guilty that you don’t have as much time as you want to spend with your staff, especially your new employees.

Creating a mentoring program can help. Through such a program, veteran personal trainers and instructors can teach newcomers tricks of the trade and give them the hands-on help that you have no time to give. Indeed, mentoring helps not only new
employees but also the mentors, managers and business itself. Take advantage of this secret weapon that other managers have used for years. In this article, veteran fitness managers share their insights
into its value.

Mentoring and the Fitness Industry

You may wonder exactly how mentoring works. According to AdvancingWomen.com, “The mentor guides . . . her protégé . . .
in developing skills, methods and work habits which the mentor
developed painstakingly over her entire career. . . . The mentor becomes, in effect, the gateway to the business experts and resources [that her protégé] will need.” Both mentor and mentee benefit from the relationship.

Moreover, companies that offer
mentoring programs gain several benefits. Mentoring increases loyalty to the company; decreases turnover;
improves morale; and enhances teamwork, sales and productivity.

Companies from a broad spectrum of industries—including DuPont, Qualcomm, General Electric, Ford Motor Company and IBM—run mentoring programs. Mentoring can also benefit the fitness industry greatly. “Our industry needs to develop a mentoring culture that motivates and inspires,” says Kathleen Burlage, owner of BodyPeaceDesigns and national group exercise trainer for the YMCA in Huntington, New York. “Some of our certification programs lack practical examinations. Instructors can go to all of the workshops and
conventions and read all of the books, but working one-to-one is a method proven to evoke excellence. Nothing
is stronger than guidance, motivation, support and encouragement to help someone succeed.”

Reaping the Benefits: Mentees and Mentors

Of course, the most obvious beneficiaries of the mentoring paradigm
are the mentees, but mentors are also rewarded.

Mentees. Janet L. Kroencke—
assistant director of fitness/wellness
for the University of Illinois Campus Recreation at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign—says that mentoring gives novice fitness instructors the time that they need to spend with experienced instructors to make and learn from mistakes. Michael Youssouf, MA, MES, manager of trainer education at the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers in New York, agrees. “A mentor can help new trainers learn how to interact with clients and develop something equivalent to a doctor’s bedside manner,”
he says. According to Debi Pillarella, MEd—exercise program manager
at The Community Hospital Fitness Pointe in Munster, Indiana—mentoring also reduces new instructors’ anxiety and helps them learn the ropes.

Mentors. “Mentoring lets veteran
instructors share their expertise without taking on a bigger commitment such as a coordinator role,” says Angela Broderick, MA, vice president of marketing and programming for Club La Femme, four women-only fitness centers in the suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri. “Instructors also feel
as though it’s a perk to be chosen as a mentor.” Burlage adds that mentoring enhances mentors’ communication with others, hones their skills, helps them transition from instructor to educator, renews their passion for their profession and keeps them connected to new enthusiasm.

Reaping the Benefits: Managers and Businesses

Mentoring helps not only mentees
and mentors but also fitness managers and businesses.

Managers. “You can’t afford to put your time into extensively developing new talent,” says Broderick, 2001 IDEA Program Director of the Year. “Mentoring saves you time by matching up people who have a passion for teaching exercise with people who have a budding passion [for teaching exercise]. Mentors become more committed to our program and end up having a stake in the new instructors, strengthening the program.”

Pillarella believes that her mentoring program takes a huge load off her as a manager. “I trust the mentoring process so I don’t have to do it myself,” she
explains. “The recognition that being
a mentor brings helps experienced instructors blossom. They become more invested in our program and the success of others.”

Businesses. Sherri McMillan, MSc—co-owner of Northwest Personal Training & Fitness Education in Vancouver, Washington—uses mentoring to aid her hiring decisions. “Before committing to bringing potential employees on our team, we can watch them in action to see whether or not they would be a good fit for our company,” she says.

Nikki Ellis, Grad. Dip. (psych. studies) cont.—personal training coordinator at Melbourne City Baths in Melbourne, Australia—says that ongoing mentoring relationships give
new trainers time to ask the questions that they might not have thought of
or had time to ask in staff induction. “This means more highly trained
trainers, which is good for business,” she elaborates.

Furthermore, Pillarella says that mentoring helps with member retention. “Members don’t like change,
including new instructors,” she says. “Our mentoring program introduces new instructors gradually to help smooth the change. The members
appreciate this and remain members.”

The Nuts and Bolts
of a Mentoring Program

A mentoring program can boost
your business but takes a lot of work. Consider these issues.

Determine Whether or Not You
Need a Mentoring Program.
If you manage only a few people, you probably don’t need a mentoring program; you probably have the time to give your staff hands-on attention yourself. Pillarella found that, whereas group fitness needed a mentoring program, personal training did not. “Most of our trainers worked here as fitness floor staff first,” she recalls. “They shadowed trainers as part of working as exercise specialists. A lot of their ‘mentoring’ happens almost by osmosis.”

Choose Qualified Mentors. “Make sure your instructors have the time and willingness to mentor,” says Burlage. “A big part of being a mentor is building confidence and encouraging personal growth in mentees. Choose mentors who possess the qualities and personality and have fulfilled the criteria you are looking for in your program.”

Youssouf notes that, sometimes, great trainers may want to mentor but are so busy that they have no energy left to give to a mentee. “In these cases, maybe they can mentor new trainers for an hour to impart specialized knowledge,” he proposes.

Develop a Program That Fits Your Culture. You may want a program
in which mentors meet several times with mentees or one in which mentees shadow their mentors only a few times. For examples of different types of
mentoring programs, see the models
on pages 2 and 3.

State Clear Expectations. Take the time up front to be organized; define the goals for both your mentors and your mentees. “We ask mentors to watch new instructors’ classes, go home, think about those classes and e-mail three items of praise and three items of constructive criticism,” Broderick says. “This structure helps mentors put their feedback into usable statements so mentees know what to expect.”

Take Care of Your Mentors. Youssouf cautions against overwhelming your mentors. “Set up your program so
your personal training mentors meet with their mentees during nonpeak hours,” he suggests. “That way, the mentors don’t lose possible training
income. In addition, allow transition time. We often set up mentoring appointments to last 45 minutes so mentors have 15 minutes to get a banana, go to the bathroom and prepare for
the next client.”

Decide Whether or Not Mentors
Will Be Paid.
In Pillarella’s program, both mentor and mentee are paid.
“The mentor is paid her class rate.
The mentee is paid our lower in-service or meeting rate, which is about $9 to $10,” she says.

In contrast, FitAdvisor.com, a Salt Lake City-based company that provides personal training and lifestyle coaching using in-person and distance-based models, does not pay its mentors. “Mentoring lets us look at trainers
who might become managers or team leaders,” says CEO Gregory Florez.
“It serves as a steppingstone for getting into management.”

Youssouf does not pay his mentors but rewards them when he can. He says, “Here in New York, our facility gets things such as free dinners and tickets for shows all the time. We give these items to our mentors.”

Realize That Not All Relationships Will Work. “Once in a while, you encounter a mentee who can ‘suck the life out of you,’” says Chalene Johnson, founder of Powder Blue Productions in Laguna Hills, California, who has more than 10 years of experience in managing fitness professionals and creating predesigned fitness programming. Be sure to create a plan for handling any problematic relationships.

Growing the Industry

Any talent-driven industry risks eating its young, as Broderick warns. “Veteran professionals look at newbies as either worthless or a threat,” she says. “Mentoring takes away that negativity. Veterans get to know new people and feel responsible for their success.”

Johnson also feels that mentoring
is vital for the fitness industry. “Mentoring improves the pool of fitness professionals to increase the professionalism, respectability and talent base of the fitness industry,” she contends. “It also feels good, and isn’t that why we got into this business in the first place?”

Personal Training Model: Northwest Personal Training & Fitness Education

Type of Business

a 6-trainer personal training business that operates inside a fitness club


Vancouver, Washington


“We mentor individuals who attend college and either need co-op experience or have to work in a health or fitness field for 40 hours as part of their curriculum,” says co-owner Sherri McMillan, MSc. “We also mentor trainers whom we have not hired but are considering. This system lets us watch them in action before committing to bringing them on our team.”

  In the apprenticeship program, newly certified trainers shadow trainers to learn how training is done in real life. “They take notes on choosing exercises, sequencing exercises, cuing, employing motivational techniques, sales and other practical skills that they can’t learn from a textbook,” McMillan says.

Mentoring Emphasis

The program ensures that trainers have the skills necessary not only to succeed financially but also to design safe and effective programs for clients.

Mentoring Tip

“The program takes time and commitment but, in the long run, saves our business time and money because our trainers get off to a good start,” McMillan notes.

Group Fitness Model: The Community Hospital Fitness Pointe

Type of Business

a hospital-based fitness center with 23 part-time fitness instructors


Munster, Indiana


Phase 1

New instructors take the mentor’s class two or three times to fulfill objectives that the mentor checks off, such as learning the names of four people in the class and showing the mentor two moves that the mentor thought the class liked. “These goals let us know that the mentee is personable and perceptive about the successful aspects of a class,” says Debi Pillarella, MEd, the facility’s exercise program manager.

Phase 2

New instructors team-teach with the mentor. After class, the new instructors comment on what they thought they did well and what they could improve. The mentor then gives them feedback.

Phase 3

New instructors teach classes alone. The mentor participates in class twice to ensure a smooth transition for the students. After this phase, the mentor checks on the mentees every so often; the mentees are free to ask the mentor questions.

Mentoring Emphasis

The program is geared to incorporate new instructors into the teaching staff quickly and smoothly so they learn the culture of the fitness center, ensuring their success and satisfying members.

Mentoring Tip

“Build in follow-up systems to evaluate the program periodically and ensure that all new instructors have a positive experience and do what they are supposed to do,” Pillarella says.

More About This Topic

For a list of mentoring resources and more specifics on mentoring practices for personal trainers, please see “The Mentoring Pathway” (IDEA Personal Trainer, March 2003, pp. 34-39).


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